Chris Hayes was driving me crazy, because I was beginning to think
I'd need to start watching television. Luckily I've been saved from that
fate, it seems. Hayes' comments on MSNBC, for which he has now absurdly
apologized, were the type of basic honesty -- or, better, truth telling
as revolutionary act -- that was tempting me.
MSNBC is part of a larger corporation that makes more money from war than from infotainment. Phil Donahue learned his lesson, along with Jeff Cohen. Cenk Uygur did too -- or perhaps he taught them one. Keith Olbermann didn't last. Rachel Maddow wants war "reformed" but would never be caught blurting out the sort of honesty that got Hayes into trouble.
Hayes questioned the appropriateness of calling warriors heroes, and of doing so in order to promote more war-making. He was right to do that. This practice has been grotesquely inappropriate for a very long time.
Pericles honored those who had died in war on the side of Athens:
"I have dwelt upon the greatness of Athens because I want to show you that we are contending for a higher prize than those who enjoy none of these privileges, and to establish by manifest proof the merit of these men whom I am now commemorating. Their loftiest praise has been already spoken. For in magnifying the city I have magnified them, and men like them whose virtues made her glorious. And of how few Hellenes can it be said as of them, that their deeds when weighed in the balance have been found equal to their fame! I believe that a death such as theirs has been the true measure of a man's worth; it may be the first revelation of his virtues, but is at any rate their final seal. For even those who come short in other ways may justly plead the valor with which they have fought for their country; they have blotted out the evil with the good, and have benefited the state more by their public services than they have injured her by their private actions.
"None of these men were enervated by wealth or hesitated to resign the pleasures of life; none of them put off the evil day in the hope, natural to poverty, that a man, though poor, may one day become rich. But, deeming that the punishment of their enemies was sweeter than any of these things, and that they could fall in no nobler cause, they determined at the hazard of their lives to be honorably avenged, and to leave the rest. They resigned to hope their unknown chance of happiness; but in the face of death they resolved to rely upon themselves alone. And when the moment came they were minded to resist and suffer, rather than to fl y and save their lives; they ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory."
Abraham Lincoln honored those who had died in war on the side of the North:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. "But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Even though presidents don't say these thing anymore, and if they can
help it don't talk about the dead at all, the same message goes without
saying today. Soldiers are praised to the skies, and the part about
their risking their lives is understood without being mentioned.
Generals are so effusively praised that it's not uncommon for them to
get the impression they run the government. Presidents much prefer being
Commander in Chief to being chief executive. The former can be treated
almost as a deity, while the latter is a well-known liar and cheat.
But the prestige of the generals and the presidents comes from their closeness to the unknown yet glorious troops. When the bigwigs don't want their policies questioned, they need merely suggest that such questioning constitutes criticism of the troops or expression of doubt regarding the invincibility of the troops. In fact, wars themselves do very well to associate themselves with soldiers. The soldiers' glory may all derive from the possibility that they will be killed in a war, but the war itself is only glorious because of the presence of the sainted troops -- not actual particular troops, but the abstract heroic givers of the ultimate sacrifice pre-honored by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
As long as the greatest honor one can aspire to is to be shipped off and killed in somebody's war, there will be wars. President John F. Kennedy wrote in a letter to a friend something he would never have put in a speech: "War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today." I would tweak that statement a little. It should include those refusing to participate in a war whether or not they are granted the status of "conscientious objector." And it should include those resisting the war nonviolently outside of the military as well, including by traveling to the expected sites of bombings in order to serve as "human shields."
When President Barack Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize and remarked that other people were more deserving, I immediately thought of several. Some of the bravest people I know or have heard of have refused to take part in our current wars or tried to place their bodies into the gears of the war machine. If they enjoyed the same reputation and prestige as the warriors, we would all hear about them. If they were so honored, some of them would be permitted to speak through our television stations and newspapers, and before long war would, indeed, no longer exist.
What Is a Hero?
Let's look more closely at the myth of military heroism handed down to us by Pericles and Lincoln. Random House defines a hero as follows (and defines heroine the same way, substituting "woman" for "man"):
"1. a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.
"2. a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal: He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child. ["]
"4. Classical Mythology.
"a. a being of godlike prowess and beneficence who oft en came to be honored as a divinity."
Courage or ability. Brave deeds and noble qualities. There is something more here than merely courage and bravery, merely facing up to fear and danger. But what? A hero is regarded as a model or ideal. Clearly someone who bravely jumped out a 20-story window would not meet that definition, even if their bravery was as brave as brave could be. Clearly heroism must require bravery of a sort that people regard as a model for themselves and others. It must include prowess and beneficence. That is, the bravery can't just be bravery; it must also be good and kind. Jumping out a window does not qualify. The question, then, is whether killing and dying in wars should qualify as good and kind. Nobody doubts that it's courageous and brave.
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